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Lavrov goes for gold again at 42

Gennady Fyodorov in Moscow | August 04, 2004 15:33 IST

Andrei Lavrov, captain of the Russian handball team, has already written his name in the history books after helping three different countries to Olympic titles and will be shooting for his fourth gold medal in Athens.

Lavrov won his first gold with the all-powerful Soviet Union team at the 1988 Seoul Games, then after the Soviet collapse he repeated the feat with the Unified Team four years later in Barcelona.

After a modest fifth-place finish in Atlanta in 1996, Lavrov captained Russia to another title at the 2000 Games in Sydney, becoming the first handball player to win three Olympic golds.

Now 42, Lavrov has won just about everything in his sport, including two world and one European titles along with numerous club trophies. He was voted Russia's Player of the Century in 2001.

Despite all his success, Lavrov, who took up handball in his native Krasnodar in southern Russia in the late 1970s, remains modest about his achievements.

"Sport is like a drug, the more you do it, the more you become addicted to it," he told Reuters. "Once you've had that winning feeling, you don't want to stop. You want it to last as long as you can. You're simply hooked."

A glittering career, spanning more than a quarter of a century, has taken the former physical education graduate back and forth across Europe in search of better life for himself and his family.

After winning his second Olympic gold in 1992, he left for Hungary, then Germany, France and Croatia before moving back to Germany in July 2003 to play for TuS N-Luebbecke. This year he switched to their Bundesliga rivals Kronau/Ostringen.

LOWER SALARIES

"In the old Soviet system we, the athletes, had pretty much everything we wanted, but after the collapse of communism we suddenly became very poor just like everyone else," he said.

"We were basically playing for peanuts and there was no hope that things would get better in Russia. By that time I already had a family and had to take care of my wife and son, so the only choice for me was to sign a contract and play abroad."

Unlike their soccer colleagues, who have multi-million-dollar contracts and make fortunes from sponsorship deals, top handball players earn more modest salaries.

"Even in Germany, the Mecca of handball, a player rarely makes more than $10,000 a month," Lavrov said.

"But still, I'm not complaining. Probably we in handball are brought up a bit differently than those in football or tennis."

The goalkeeper, who stands 1.97 metres tall and weighs 94 kg, said handball had not only helped him to make a decent living but had also given him valuable lessons in life.

"When I lived in the Soviet Union, I didn't know anything else in life except how to play the game," he said.

"Playing in Europe has given me the opportunity to learn different cultures, languages and many other things," added Lavrov, who in addition to his native Russian also speaks fluent German, French, English and Serbo-Croat.

"I know when I finish playing I'll be able to make a smooth transition to life after handball."

But success in sport has come with a price.

"Handball is a contact sport and probably there is no part of my body which hasn't been injured one way or another," said Lavrov, who has had eight different operations and recently came back from knee surgery.

FATHER'S FOOTSTEPS

"Other players consider goalkeepers a bit crazy as we must face balls flying at speeds of over 170 kph," he added.

"The human eye is trained to see things up to 160 kph, so often you only rely on intuition and reflexes."

Lavrov said he was not thinking about retirement just yet.

"In our case experience is the key and most goalkeepers mature when they get close to 30. So by goalkeeping standards I'm not that old," he said with a smile.

"Of course, if I played football I probably would have quit by now, but it's different in handball. We have smaller goals, so I think I still have a few good years left in my body."

But before he decides to call it a day, Lavrov wants to reach another milestone by playing alongside his elder son, 18-year-old Ivan who has followed in his father's footsteps, on the same team in a professional match.

While Lavrov's younger son Sergei prefers the more popular tennis over handball, Ivan has already signed his first professional deal with one of Germany's third division teams.

"We all knows the great (hockey player) Gordie Howe once played with his sons (Mark and Marty) on the same team and I would love to match that before I retire," Lavrov said.

"If I could top my career by playing alongside Ivan I would cherish such an accomplishment as much as I do my Olympic gold medals."


Athens 2004: The Complete Coverage

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